Skeletons in the Closet and Fabulous Polish Poster Art

I firmly believe that posters are one of the most educational artforms that exists.Through posters one can learn about historical events that have long been forgotten, artists who perhaps only produced one poster in their lifetime, or products that –while once mainstays – now no longer exist.

Vintage Product Label

Every poster has a story – but sometimes the key to finding out what that story is takes a little research, a lot of determination, and a little bit of luck.

Now that the gallery is – more or less – finished, I have installed a book-rack in the bathroom. I don’t often have 5 (or less) minutes to spare, but I don’t like to waste a moment, so the rack is filled with magazines and poster books. One of them, called 100 French Posters by Les Editions du Demi-Cercle, provided insight into a bunch of posters I hadn’t quite understood.

Slub - Starowieyski
Slub by Starowieyski (1970s)

In the collection of posters that Hans Glaubitz (we’ve written about him before) consigned to us, there were a handful of Polish theater and movie posters that he picked up when he was posted in Warsaw. They are unlike anything else which we sell, and frankly, when I first saw them, they scared the bejeesuz out of me. Full of skulls and skeletons, symbolism and hidden messages, they are freaky, quirky, and an artform unto themselves.

Skorpion Panna I - Kodratuk
Skorpion Panna I – Kodratuk

When they first came in I put them all up so I could study them closely, but after a few weeks, they began to work their strange magic on me and I took them down. I didn’t understand them, and I didn’t have the time to do the proper research…until I checked that little book-rack. In speaking of modern French posters, and the history of their design, the authors of the book wrote that their “inspirations of this era came from the Polish school, then at the height of it’s glory… Young French graphic designers traveled to Poland to study graphic arts…” Which reminded me of my long lost research project. Which brought me to …

Women In Posters - Polish Poster (1970s)
Women In Posters – Polish Poster (1970s)

a great website called There, some of the clues were deciphered for me …

Museum of the city walls
Museum of the city walls

“In 1968 the first poster museum in the world was opened in Warsaw. Two years earlier, Poland had held the First International Poster Biennial, which for many years was the most prestigious event of its kind. The proximity of those two events was no coincidence. At that time, Poland was known for being the centre of “wall and board” art. Its distinct character and artistic value meant that the world soon began to speak of the Polish poster school”

The school emerged in the late 1950s, when, after years of Social Realism being all-pervasive in art, Polish artistic life suddenly became much more exciting. Although success is usually dependent on many factors, we can safely say that the Polish poster school has one person to thank – the painter, drawer and graphic artist, Henryk Tomaszewski. He quickly gained the support of young and extremely talented artists who for years dedicated themselves to poster art. The most important artists of the Polish poster school were Jozef Mroszczak, Wojciech Zamecznik, Jan Mlodozeniec, Waldemar Swierzy, Jan Lenica and Franciszek Starowieyski.

starowieyski Polish movie posters
Starowieyski (1970s)

A good deal of thought has been given to the school’s phenomenon. It seems that its success can be attributed to social, as well as artistic, conditions. The genial political climate in the country at the time was an important factor. Moreover, every possible organisation, especially those in the cultural arena, were vying for posters painted by one of the famous artists. For many years there was no film, opera or theatre premiere, concert, festival or other public event without a poster. “There were years when I was making a poster every week, and even so I often had to decline commissions,” Waldemar Swierzy remembers. The Poster Museum has collected a few thousand Polish posters painted between 1956 and 1963 only. The poster soon became an element of mass culture and poster biennials in Warsaw attracted huge crowds. The collectors’ movement spread widely. There were galleries that specialised in selling posters, while the popular daily Zycie Warszawy for many years held a famous contest for the best posters of the month and the year, as voted by the readers.

There was much to divide these artists as every one of them had arrived at his own idiom, immediately recognisable, even from a distance. But at the same time there was something very important to link them together, something that made the Polish school something real and distinct.

Iluminacja - Polish Head & Eyeball (Zunessi)
Iluminacja – Polish Head & Eyeball (Zunessi)

This can be attributed to the fact that all of them were painting ambitious posters, expecting of the public an understanding of the signs, symbols and allegories. Polish posters were not only pieces of art, but also intellectual labyrinths and games of hide-and-seek. Posters referred not only to emotions, but to intellect aswell. Viewers were required to think. .(

Masters of the Polish Poster
Masters of the Polish Poster

My research will continue, but if you’re interested in finding out more, here are two
websites I recommend:
See how much you can learn from bathroom back-racks?

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